Senegal/Sierra Leone: 47 years old and starting over – for the second time

03-06-2010 Feature

In 1996 Mohamed Fofanah left Freetown, a city torn apart by civil war. After 13 years of wandering that brought him to Guinea, Nigeria and Senegal, he is finally going home.

Mohamed leaves Dakar for his home in Sierra Leone. 
Mohamed, welcomed home by a team from the ICRC and the Sierra Leone Red Cross Society, is reunited with his sister Bintou after 13 years of separation. 

Mohamed Fofanah has the weary look of someone who has been travelling far too long. His journey of poverty, solitude and perilous living conditions lasted for nearly 14 years.

Mohamed fled the danger of Freetown in 1996, five years into a civil war that would not end until 2002. Thus began a long period of wandering. From Freetown he went to Guinea and then caught a boat for Nigeria because, he said: “That's where all refugees from Sierra Leone went”. He ended up at the Oru refugee camp in Ogun State in the southwest of the country. He was granted refugee status and spent five months at the camp, which was run by the UN High Commission for Refugees. “Living conditions in the camp were difficult”, he said.

He decided to leave the camp, even though he did not know what the " outside " held for him. What he found was Lagos, where " danger is permanent and fear sticks to your skin " . He said: " You are alone and they don’t trust strangers, which means that you can’t find work”.

 Constantly on the move  


At the start, he wrote several letters to his family and gave them to supposed messengers. He does not know if they ever reached their destination, and he never received a reply. He focused his energies on the daily struggle: he was constantly on the move – and therefore always starting from scratch – and would collect odd jobs along the way. “You don’t have much time to think about your family when you're just trying to scrape by”.

Mohamed end ed up spending over ten years in Nigeria before he picked up again. " I simply couldn’t stand that life any longer”, he said, his voice still tinged with bitterness.

He chose to go to Senegal despite the distance. He suffered his share of misfortune at every border crossing: extortion, having to buy back his identity documents for a few CFA francs, and vain pleas for mercy.

In July 2009 Mohamed arrived in Dakar, full of hope. He sought help from non-government organizations and, at the same time, requested asylum " to build a life in the country and live normally " , he said. The National Eligibility Commission rejected his asylum request. He appealed the decision, but the appeal too was rejected. He thus found himself an undocumented immigrant in Senegal. He did not have papers, and he did not receive the expected help from the organizations that he contacted. The cycle of uncertainty, poverty, isolation and exclusion ground into motion again.

 Family reunification  

Mohamed then knocked on the ICRC’s door in Dakar. He would go there several times a week, dropping off letters that described his situation. As part of its mandate to protect and assist the victims of armed conflict and other situations of violence, the ICRC runs a family reunification programme. The goal is to restore contact between people scattered by war, forced displacement, natural disaster, economic migration, or other reasons.

" We can repatriate people who appear physically and/or psychologically vulnerable and who have a desire to leave " , said Sophie Orr, who runs the programme at the ICRC’s regional delegation in Dakar.

At this point, Mohamed had not heard of his family for over 13 years. " We make sure the person is truly interested, and then we seek the approval of the person's family in the home country. These are key steps in the repatriation process”, said Sophie.

Mohamed provided the addresses – those that he remembered – of some of his family members. The ICRC staff in Dakar coordinated the search process. In Sierra Leone, teams from the ICRC and Red Cross Society located some of Mohamed’s cousins as well as Bintou, his younger sister, after only two weeks of research. " I will never forget that first phone call " , he said, " the shock of hearing familiar voices, and then the feeling of relief " .

The ICRC then undertook the appropriate procedures with the governments of Sierra Leone and Senegal. " We covered some of his back rent, bought him some suitcases and clothes for the trip, and issued the travel papers he would need to cross the borders " , said Sophie.

Mohamed returned home at the age of 47. This is not the first time he is starting over, but this time he is back in his own country.